Turmoil abroad hijacks a simple agenda

Blair's plan for informal seclusion went awry, reports Mary Dejevsky in Birmingham
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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR and seven of the most powerful men in the world were closeted at Weston Park in rural Shropshire for much of the G8 meeting. This was the informal seclusion Mr Blair had wanted for "his" global summit.

But in the months of planning for a quieter, simpler summit, the Prime Minister reckoned without the world's unpredictable ways. This year, for the umpteenth time since such world summits were inaugurated at Rambouillet in France in 1975, the agenda was overtaken by events - Indian nuclear tests and riots in Indonesia.

The advance agenda - combating international crime, Third World debt, and employment - was not calculated to produce fireworks. The countryside venue for discussions ensured that the media were kept physically at arm's length. The number of "summiteers" had also been slimmed down by the decision to banish finance and foreign ministers, who met last weekend in London.

But sudden international crises are not so easy to banish. In the five days between the dispersal of the foreign ministers' meeting and last Friday, when the leaders arrived at Birmingham, India conducted five underground nuclear tests. Then Indonesia, recently congratulated for taking the medicine prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, erupted in riots that may topple President Suharto.

Inevitably, the summit agenda had to be augmented. The media could not be kept at bay, and the Birmingham summit became a focus for the world.

In fact, hijacked agendas are by now almost a tradition of Group of Seven summits (now eight, to include Russia). Seven years ago, in London, an only half-bidden guest, then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, turned the spotlight on to his creaking empire and the fragility of his own position, but left disappointed.

Two years ago, at Lyons, the new French President, Jacques Chirac, wanted to concentrate on social inequity in the developed world - one of the messages from his election campaign. But on the eve of the summit, terrorists bombed a United States barracks building in Saudi Arabia and the fight against international terrorism became the order of the day.

Last year, at Denver, it was the American hosts who found themselves outflanked. High on their agenda was to broadcast the success of the US "economic model". In a conference centre so close to abject dereliction that even the chauffeured leaders could catch a glimpse, the Europeans and Canadians, led by a fuming President Chirac, made common cause against US "triumphalism".

It was in response to this combination of negative culture wars and the formalistic paragraphing of interminable foreign policy statements, that Mr Blair wanted to recapture something of earlier, more innocent, summits. He wanted ideas exchanged in an atmosphere where, because formal agreement was not mandatory, disagreement was no shame.

India and Indonesia made this almost impossible. The US, Europe, and Russia were all at odds over how to respond to India, while Indonesia offered even more fertile soil for discord. With the deteriorating situation in Jakarta has come the search for culprits: is it the IMF, President Suharto, or the years of US indulgence of a corrupt, but pro-Western, regime?

As the leaders reemerged into the limelight, it was clear that Mr Blair's quiet and simple summit had turned out to be nothing of the kind.